‘Modernism’ is a broad term with many different connotations. In this article, Jon Lindblom provides a basic introduction to it from the perspectives of cultural theory and Modernism Unbound.

It seems to me that writing about modernism faces at least two basic difficulties. On the one hand, the obvious complexity of a broad term that has been interpreted in numerous different ways throughout the past one-and-a-half century. On the other hand, the many cultural tropes that it nevertheless also has come to be associated with (e.g. high cultural, European, early to mid-20th century). Writing on modernism thus runs the dual risk of overt vagueness or cliché: of either getting stuck in an endless web of semantic clarifications, or of getting too caught up in entrenched ideas of what modernism is. With Modernism Unbound, I intend to navigate away from both these conceptual dead-ends by constructing a very specific conception of modernism that, in various ways, attempts to disassociate it from some of its most well-known characteristics. More specifically, I am interested in thinking of what the concept of cultural and aesthetic modernism might have to offer us today – particularly if synthesised with (as opposed to distanced from) popular culture.

In that regard, while certainly strongly indebted to the important research done on European, high cultural modernism by numerous academic scholars, this is not simply a historical project on cultural and aesthetic modernism in the West in the first half of the 20th century – but rather a more future oriented project that aims to outline some basic speculative premises of what we may refer to as a future modernist popular culture. In other words, I am ultimately not interested in just thinking about modernism as it has been, but particularly also in what it could become: what kind of culture could emerge through the deterritorialisation of certain key elements of high modernism (e.g. experimentation, progression and novelty) beyond their historical high cultural restrictions for the purpose of envisioning a genuinely subversive, future modernist popular culture. In order to do so, the project aims to look at modernism through the lens of socially oriented thinking such as Marxist cultural theory and post-capitalist political theory.

I will return to the basic ideas behind this project in the final part of this article. But before doing so, I will provide a brief introduction to modernism as it usually is characterised in cultural theory – including two of its central characteristics that also are key to my own approach to it: its commitment to formal innovation and its disavowal of popular culture (here I should also add its European and gender components, although I have omitted it from here since I am still to research it properly). Finally, I will also provide a brief overview of the shift from modernism to postmodernism and to popular modernism.

What is Modernism?

We initially need to make a distinction between ‘modernism’ and ‘modernity’ – where the latter primarily refers to the particular socio-political matrix that came into existence in the Western world around the turn of the 20th century, and the former to the explosion of novel aesthetic expressions that emerged in response to it. Indeed, this was a time when massive changes took place in the West, in the form of urbanisation, industrialisation, as well as numerous scientific discoveries and technological inventions that catapulted Western society into the modern era (including, but not limited to, the phonograph, the lightbulb, synthetic fibre, the steam turbine, the electric motor, the box camera, the gramophone disc, x-rays, radio telegraphy, the movie camera, the discovery of radium, the first radio transmissions, the special theory of relativity, the photon theory of light, etc.). According to the art critic Robert Hughes, these numerous intellectual and techno-social transformations gave rise to what he – in his great book and TV-series The Shock of the New (1980, from which the list of inventions and discoveries above partially has been taken) – refers to as ‘an accelerated rate of change in all areas of human discourse, including art’, which he suggests is ‘the essence of the early modernist experience, between 1880 and 1914’.

Modernism in Western art thus first came into existence around the same time and lasted roughly until the mid-20th century. And rather than being associated with a specific artistic medium, it came to be articulated in all kinds of art – such as painting, literature, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, cinema and music – by artists who all were interested in experimenting with novel kinds of aesthetic forms on the back of the major changes that Western society was undergoing. This includes experiments with broken perspectives in painting, atonality in music, stream-of-consciousness narration in literature, the use of rigid geometric forms in both painting and architecture, as well as experiments with montage and other forms of fragmented structures whose common denominator was the desire to move beyond previous naturalist forms of art and other artistic conventions – which no longer were considered adequate for interfacing with an increasingly complex and abstract world. More specifically, modernist artists were particularly interested in utilising art in order to rearticulate how we experience the world, as opposed to simply depicting what we experience, which came to be expressed through a plethora of formal aesthetic innovations.

Formalism and Formal Innovation

In art theory, formalism refers to an approach to aesthetics that puts particular emphasis on the compositional structure of an artwork (e.g. how a painting is composed or a film is shot and edited) – and it is precisely through the medium of formalism that modernist artists (regardless of their chosen artform) came to experiment with new ways of experiencing the world that reflected the wide-sweeping changes that were transforming Western society at the time. The Cubists’ experiments with fragmented visual perspectives in painting – which subverted the perspectival logic that dominated Western art at the time – is a well-known example here, as well as the Futurists’ interests in visually capturing the movements and dynamisms of modern life. Central to the aesthetic achievements of modernism is thus the concept of formal innovation – which came to sit at the heart of an aesthetic dictum of experimentation and innovation that still remains in our vocabulary for how to think about art in the 21st century, and that was oriented around the poet Ezra Pound’s maxim to ‘Make it New!’ In that regard, the associations of aesthetic modernism with experimentation and novelty – as well as with the serious and difficult – is very much linked to the impetus of formal innovation.

The Antagonism Towards Popular Culture

Along with the idea of modernism – or ‘high modernism’, as it sometimes is referred to – as serious and difficult that came with the emergence of a culture oriented around formal experimentation, and that also is with us today, is a sharp distinction between high modernist and (low) mass cultural forms – which is encapsulated perhaps most famously in the high modernist theorists Clement Greenberg’s distinction between avant-garde and kitsch, as well as Theodor Adorno’s distinction between serious culture and the culture industry. Simply put, the assumption here is that there are determinate qualities to popular culture – in the sense that the pieces representative of it by definition lack the artistic integrity and complexity of the artworks associated with high culture. This is why modernism sometimes is referred to as an elite culture that rests upon an unbridgeable gap between high and pop cultural forms, which the postmodernists of the post-war decades came to critique from various perspectives. (Although here it is also important to remember that not all cultural movements that usually are associated with modernism can simply be understood according to this divide. For instance, the ambitions of the Russian Constructivists of the early 20th century to build what we may refer to as a communist mass culture represents an important divergent trajectory in Western modernism away from the idea of high culture as a distinct social sphere.)

The Emergence of Postmodernism…

In cultural theory, it is generally said that postmodernism first emerged in the 1960s (as first articulated in the writings of critics such as Susan Sontag and Leslie Fiedler), mainly as a response to what was considered a shift of high modernism from an oppositional to a canonical position. In other words, the postmodern sentiment was that modernism had become institutionalised in museums, universities and art galleries as the high culture of the post-war Western world and in that sense had lost its antagonistic cultural potential (i.e. its ability to shock and alienate). As Fredric Jameson puts it in his famous essay on postmodernism from 1984: ‘This is surely one of the most plausible explanations for the emergence of postmodernism itself, since the younger generation of the 1960s will now confront the formerly oppositional modern movement as a set of dead classics, which ‘weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living’, as Marx once said in a different context.’

Postmodernism thus came to represent a break with what was considered an outdated modernist canon – and particularly with its sharp distinction between serious and popular culture, which was thought of as an equally outdated dichotomy of an older generation. Postmodernism instead came to be associated with a younger culture that had no problems with combining high and pop cultural forms, in contrast with what was taken as the elitism of the modernist categorical distinction between high and popular culture.

…and Popular Modernism

However, even though I generally agree with this account of the emergence of postmodernism, I think that it also is somewhat too general in that it often tends to view all forms of pop cultural expressions from the post-war decades and onwards as postmodern. Yet I believe that this obscures what we may think of as two opposing tendencies in popular culture at least from the 1960s and onwards: postmodernism, on the one hand, and popular modernism (which is the critical theorist Mark Fisher’s term) on the other. For even though both these tendencies may be positioned in opposition to the elite culture of high modernism, postmodernism (particularly as it has been formulated by Jameson) came to represent a more definite break with the former – because of its move away from high modernism’s emphasis on formal experimentation and innovation to its opposites (e.g. kitsch and formal recycling) – whereas popular modernism in fact maintained this component, but within pop cultural contexts.

In other words, popular modernism crucially pinpoints the fact that there is an aesthetic continuity between many of the greatest post-war cultural movements (e.g. rave, post-punk, various young and experimental cinemas) and their high modernist predecessors (e.g. Cubism, Futurism and Abstract Expressionism) – specifically in terms of an impetus of formal innovation – which is overlooked if we simply think of everything pop cultural since the post-war era as postmodern. It is indeed the work of Mark Fisher that has allowed us to convincingly make this distinction based on the idea of a popular modernist culture that I believe maps out a crucial alternative trajectory in post-war Western culture beyond the familiar postmodern one – which, needless to say, has been highly influential on my own writing on the synthesis of the modernist and the popular.

What is Modernism Unbound?

Modernism Unbound refers to the unbinding of the modernist aesthetic commitment to experimentation and novelty – as indexed by formal innovation – from its high modernist confinement within a (for the most part) European high culture of the early 20th century. Contrary to this, the modernism in Modernism Unbound is conceived of as a present and in particular future modernism distributed throughout popular culture (in various pop cultural formats such as film, television, music videos, the internet, etc.) in ways that compel us to redraw the high modernist dichotomy between modernism and popular culture, according to the augmented circulation of various kinds of formal innovations across the popular realm. Additionally, drawing upon Marxist cultural critics such as Adorno and Jameson, it views popular culture under capitalism as an inherently oppressive and conservative culture (i.e. as an instrument of social domination orchestrated by the ruling class) that gives us a very poor idea of what both popular and modernist culture could be. The assumption is that we can do a lot better, but that the modernist popular culture envisioned here cannot really come into proper existence until the global hegemony of capitalism has been overcome. In that regard, its future development is intimately tied to various political struggles for a post-capitalist world.

Thanks to Cecilie Hilmer, Coll Hutchison and David Warwick for the discussions that motivated me to write this article.

Image Credit: Yellow-Red-Blue (1925), by Wassily Kandinsky (WikiArt)